Nov 24, 2007

Putting the "i" in journalism*

Kevin Roderick at LA Observed links to another first-person profile from a staff journalist at the Los Angeles Times and then declares himself a fan: I'm all for more of these revealing first-person stories by newspaper journalists, a trend that includes the LAT's Scott Glover recounting on Thursday his disruptive search for his birth parents in Ireland and Scotland — ending with his giving up alcohol — and NYT national reporter (and former LAT staffer) Amy Harmon's funny story about confronting the genetic pluses and minuses in her DNA test.

I enjoyed the Harmon piece. She didn't so much profile herself as record her thoughts and actions after taking a DNA test. The other two stories are much more confessional, which begs the question: Would their stories make the paper if another reporter were told to write it?

I ask that question because journalists have a responsibility to report the unvarnished truth when profiling someone. You don't let the subject of the story dictate which facts are pertinent and which ones too embarrassing or hurtful to include.

If papers are going to ask (or allow) their staff to be this open with the readers, shouldn't the subjects be held to these same standards? How are these pieces "reported"? Do editors independently verify the author's claims? Do the editors conduct independent investigations to ensure nothing pertinent is left out? What happens when there are uncomfortable facts - divorces, arrests, estrangements - that are integral to the story, but that the author has left out?

Aren't these reporters essentially making themselves into public figures? If so, shouldn't they be held to the same rigorous standards as anyone else the paper chooses to profile? And maybe they are, but I tend to think co-workers get the benefit of the doubt when tough calls have to be made.

* One other point: The reason reporters try to limit how much information they share with sources is that sources can turn around and use that information against the reporter. This isn't a game of ego, but a responsibility to stand out of the way so the readers gets as much truth as possible. These first-person profiles have got to affect the kind of reporting these journalists are able to do in the future - but who will ever know?

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